Thursday, 23 October 2014

FEN: The Timeless Flaws and Rituals of Humanity

FEN hold a very special place within the turbulent skies Wyrd's Flight likes to explore. I am especially excited to see them performing soon at DAMNATION festival as part of a great line-up (1st November, Leeds; live report coming up!), while a review of their  marvellous new work "Carrion Skies" is also nicely brewing away... 

In the meantime, I am delighted to offer an interesting interview by Andreas Schiffmann with The Watcher. 
Straight-talking as ever, and damn pleasurable to read, Frank provides a wonderful insight on the new album, whilst reiterating the band's artistic message within the varied and still expanding black metal horizons. 

First of all, when setting off to write the new album, what did you want to do differently in comparison to "Dustwalker"?

As always, we wanted to move forward first by looking back at what we’d already achieved and assessing our albums as a whole before defining the path ahead. Where next to go? What avenues had we not yet explored? As a band, we were quite satisfied with how the last album turned out but as always, there’s the nagging sensation that there is more to be done, greater things to be achieved, avenues of expression as yet explored. 

We’d started some preliminary writing prior to the tour with Agalloch in 2013 and upon our return, our intensions had been crystallised – we wanted to write a metal album. We felt that the diffuse nature of ‘post’ black metal had become somewhat suffocating for the genre and that we wanted to reconnect with the essence of extreme metal at the core of what we had originally set out to do when the band was originally formed back in 2006. This isn’t to discredit our work on ‘Dustwalker’ at all – far from it – but we wanted to make the next album harder, darker, more intense, both conceptually and musically. Our goal ultimately was to describe themes of blood and earth, sacrifice and worship, fear and death, through a heavier musical approach. 

How does the album title work as an overall "motto"? What could "carrion skies" actually be?

It took a while for the album title to arrive this time as we really wanted something to fully embody the themes therein. ‘Dustwalker’ was a dreamier record focussing on internal reflections of existentialism – with all of the associated spiritual baggage that entails! This album is more ‘external’ in scope – looking outwards as opposed to inwards - and the title needed to embody this.  

The actual words themselves are a fusion of some of the more powerful images from the first song, ‘Our Names Written in Embers’ which deals with the concept of the human impulse for conflict and the meaningless of such conflicts when set against the passage of time. ‘Carrion Skies’ suggests a blood-drenched prophecy, the metaphorical gathering of stormclouds on distant horizons, smoke filling the sky and the promise of turmoil to come. 

You have worked with Esoteric's Greg Chandler this time; what could he over the band which it was previously lacking?

Again, we wanted to do something different. All of our releases up until now have been self-recorded/mixed/produced. As much as I have been satisfied with the results, there’s always a danger of slipping into your comfort zone in such circumstances – we therefore agreed that working with an external producer would be another step towards crafting something that progresses Fen as a band.

I have always said in the past that I have been reluctant to bring in an ‘outside’ influence to the Fen recording process as I think the way that this band works is quite unique – nevertheless, if it is the right person with the right approach, I am happy to have them on board. After several discussions (and having met him several times when playing shows with Esoteric), it became clear that Greg is very much the ‘right’ person. He instinctively – and swiftly – understood what we were trying to achieve and really bought into our approach. Not only that, he demonstrated a real professionalism and presented an incredible work ethic. Some of the tracking days were 12-13 hours long – hard, tiring sessions but his commitment was without question. Being in an established working band himself, he understands the picture from both sides of the mixing desk which is invaluable. 

I think the results speak for themselves – this record is the most focussed ‘complete’ album we have yet done, a testament I feel to the hard work and intensity of the sessions that created it. 

What I find noteworthy was the diversity of guitar tones; can we consider that experimentation, and where do these impulses come from?

Thanks for the comments and its true we did spend a lot of time experimenting with various guitar (and bass) sounds on this album. For my part, I spent the first few months of 2014 upgrading my guitar setup considerably – new pickups, a new amp, some new effects – and given that Greg is also a bit of a guitar pedal obsessive, we did spend a lot of time trying out different delays, reverbs, tones, all in the quest for texture and ambience. 

This is very important to me. I have been playing guitar for twenty years now and it’s clear I will never be a ‘technical’ player in the classic sense - however what I do strive to achieve is to describe an atmosphere with the guitar, an all-encompassing soundscape. The sound of the guitar can be just as important as the riffs/chords/notes being played in delivering the message or dynamic of a particular song. 

It isn’t just ‘turning everything on to 10’ and hoping for the best however – sometimes, it can be really pulling back on the layers, stripping things back to their most simple state to allow a core tone to ‘breathe’. The rhythm guitar tracks on the album for example are just the amp itself running completely dry – we experimented with a variety of boost pedals, overdrives and other things but in the end, the tone of the amp worked perfectly and we ended up with keeping it as simple as possible. 

So yes, continuing to explore a diversity of tones and guitar ambiences will be an ongoing part of the Fen sound – even (as with ‘Carrion Skies’) when working towards a more ‘extreme’ take on our sound, this is a big consideration. 

Can we understand the twopartite 'Our Names Written In Embers' as a call to war with the actual battle and its maybe bitter aftermath?

That’s it – the irrepressible human impulse for conflict, sorrowful reflection, resolution to avoid it in future and the inevitability of it returning once the pain and the lessons fade with time. This feels even more topical than when it was originally written (the ghastly administration running our country beats the drums of war once again it seems) but for me, this just lends further weight and vindication to the central theme of this song. 

‘…Embers’ is a hugely important song for us – easily the longest and most involved piece that we have yet created, it also embraces some of our most discordant and intense moments to date. For this, we had to undertake a lyrical approach that was appropriate to accompany this and a study of war – of the mindset, emotions, senses and ultimately, the thinking of humanity behind it – dovetailed suitably with the more apocalyptic sounds of the song itself. Strong ideas roil within such a piece – triumph, exultation and hope giving way to desolation, despair and anguish. As it’s the opening song of the album, I think it sets the tone perfectly and indeed, the ‘Carrion Skies’ of the album title are almost directly taken from the lyrics of this piece. After all, when battle is concluded, what remains other than the carrion of the dead and a landscape stained by slaughter? 

'The Dying Stars' also speaks about embers and the "beauty within destruction"; is bellicose subject matter again?

This is more a question relating to humanity’s propensity to romanticise death, destruction and sacrifice. It ties in with the overall themes running throughout the album – this song in particular focuses on the futility of applying notions of beauty to abstract concepts rooted primarily in the illusory or the unknown. More prosaically, it deals with man’s fascination with the night sky and the stars in particular – sidestepping the reality of the face that each star represents a thundering conflagration born of chaos and churning primordial combustion that is heading inexorably towards its own ending.  

Indeed, many of these stars no longer exist – in the time it has taken their light to reach us, their existence has ended, often destroyed in the furious destructive power of a supernova which obliterates everything nearby. Any civilized worlds or lifeforms in the vicinity will have been utterly eradicated – a death-throe that could be considered beautiful to a distant observer but is actually an example of sheer devastation. 

Beauty ultimately is nebulous at best and all worship is rooted in fallacy and illusion – yet it is the human condition to indulge in this futility time and again. 

'The Sentinels' to me seems like a change of tack and is most prominent because of its vocoder(?)-vocals (and maybe the Tom Warrior "ugh!" ;)). How did this one develop? It seems to tell one whole story on its own.

It was Grungyn who wrote this song and performed lead vocals here and therefore, he would be best placed to answer it (although I added the ‘ugh!’ – it seemed to work at that juncture!). He worked on this song very much in isolation so it was pretty much a complete piece when it was presented to the rest of us – though we did have input in terms of arrangements, guitar sounds/textures and so on. It’s one of the more ‘prog’ songs on the album certainly, Grungyn spent a lot of time in the studio working on vocal ideas and layers for this one. 

This song I believe addresses themes of cycles and change, of what remains ever present and what shifts, fades and is renewed through the ages. Specifically this is looking monuments and relics from ancient civilisations, what we know of them and how much remains a mystery. Often the purpose of ancient monuments and the life of the societies that spawned them are only guessed at. It highlights the transient nature of humanity, in that the sentinels of our civilisation my one day be a similarly obtuse and esoteric reminder of an age past. In this, there are links to ‘Gathering the Stones’ – how remembrance and the works of man can fade with time, it is only in naming and legend that memories can endure. 

Given that 'Menhir' is joined to the term 'Supplicant', I was thinking it could be a song about worship, so what, in your eyes, is worthy of praise here?

Nothing. Nothing is worthy of worship and that is the key here. Once again, we are faced with a fundamental failing of the human condition – the compulsion to worship, to supplicate oneself before an ‘other’, to indulge in sacrifice (both of ourselves and of others), to delegate all responsibility in the name of faith. And what remains when the dust settles and the blood has dried? The yoke of slavery – both spiritual and physical – and the empty, unfulfilled legacy of submission that runs throughout generation after generation. 

We shall never learn. ‘Menhir-Supplicant’ speaks of altars of stone, of polytheistic Gods that dwell within the soil or the stars yet the central tenets remain true today – the principles remain, it is just that in 2014, we have altars of silicon or concrete, Gods who dwell in gated mansions controlling the fortunes of nations at the click of a finger, a population sacrificing the very essence of its own humanity in a bid to survive. And as ever, so willing we are to supplicate ourselves before these ever-present totems that only slavery remains. Time shifts and move forwards, yet the rituals are doomed to be repeated again and again. 

'Gathering The Stones' speaks about the endtimes amongst other things, yet seems ambivalent to me in the end, so I do not know what's the outcome of it all; could you shed some light on that?

As I alluded to earlier, ‘Gathering the Stones’ is about remembrance, time and immortality. How all of the works of man will fade with time and the only way that any entity can endure and live on is in myth, legend, stories passed down through millennia. The strongest signifier of identity and individuality is one’s name – we empower a concept and breathe life into it by naming and hence, the link between names, history and immortality is a strong one indeed. Names can live on and it is in the naming – and remembering – that someone or something can become (in a metaphysical sense) eternal. 

This is most clearly referenced in the line ‘to name is to remember – to remember is to summon’, that we give life and validity to something by virtue of its memory. After all, what other validity is there to existence than our own perception of it? Solipsistic this may sound but it is only the phenomena experienced by our consciousness that has any true meaning to ourselves as individuals. 

The conclusion of the song is ambiguous, certainly – memories fade, things are forgotten and reality moves on. The outcome of it all is just that – uncertainty, fading, that humanity ultimately has its own choices to make. 

With all these ancient topics: What can we draw from it all for our lives in the irrefutable present?

That irrefutable though it may be, our present is the past-yet-to-come – the essence of humanity remains unchanging throughout the ages. 

Is it essential for Fen to cling to archaic and nature-related topics? Could you imagine addressing modern issues and even technology in your music?

We do speak of these things – it may be in a metaphorical sense and we don’t address them directly but ultimately (and as referenced above), the flaws and rituals of humanity are in many ways timeless. Worship, sacrifice, conflict, hate, reverence – as applicable to us now as they will have been several thousand years ago.

It is important to make these distinctions clear and I must emphasise strongly that we in Fen are not ‘clinging on’ to ‘archaic’ topics or times rooted in the past. We definitely do not yearn for a return to some form of unspecified historic age of glory, for simpler times of yore or any form of a romanticised past era. For us, that represents escapism, a fantasy based in an idealised depiction of the past. Indeed, such thinking elevates ‘the good old days’ to the status of some kind of heavenly nirvana when all the evidence points to the past being as grim and unpleasant as the ‘modern’ era, as subject to the whims of the rich, powerful and corrupt as we are now. 

This is not our view at all. We have no interest in hiding in escapism or lingering fantasies. The imagery and context of ancient history of course can be powerfully evocative indeed and this is certainly one of the reasons our lyrics and imagery on this album are rooted within this. Nevertheless, the lessons told therein are more fundamental than that – they resonate ever-more strongly within the present to address the struggles that continue to plague us as individuals and societies.  

How important is it for you to be seen within the context of Black Metal as opposed to being an individual entity?

I’m not hugely concerned with how we are perceived, frankly. I do worry about being misunderstood (as does anybody) but as a musician, there’s not really a lot you can do about that really. All you can do is try and communicate as clearly as possible. If an external observer/listener sees fit to bracket us in with the black metal scene, then that is fine – ours is a sound earthed in black metal and indeed, on Carrion Skies, we have endeavoured to reconnect ourselves somewhat with our origins. Yes, there is nothing explicitly Satanic within our lyrical concepts or imagery (so if this is what is necessary for us to be defined as black metal then fine, we are not) – however, my personal definition of black metal is based far more upon a sonic definition than an explicit lyrical/ideological stance and for me, musically at least, Fen is predominantly a black metal band.

But I digress. This debate has been going on for decades now and there is no right or wrong answer, it will continue to rage. Music is a subjective artform first and foremost, all that genre tags allow us to do is to conveniently pigeonhole certain bands who share stylistic and/or ideological similarities. Having Fen associated with black metal is certainly useful for us as I believe we share a number of core stylistic traits with the genre but it isn’t something that I feel a PERSONAL need for. Black metal itself has become so diffuse with numerous interpretations and stylistic branches (depressive/suicidal black metal, industrial black metal, pagan black metal, ambient black metal and so on) that I think that ‘black metal’ itself has become a rather general ‘umbrella’ term as opposed to a definite stylistic signifier. 

The genre's orthodox fraction has been on the rise again for some time now, claiming that you are supposed to be satanic, misanthropic and so on; how much of all that - maybe in an abstract sense - is left within Fen?

Orthodox black metal is just one branch/interpretation of black metal – of course, said proponents would claim to be the ‘truest’ of all but as with ANY participant in ANY genre, they are setting the rules and parameters on via their personal interpretation of said genre. Yes, misanthropy, hatred and Satanism can be said to lie at the very heart of the origins of the second wave of the genre but this is really only an interpretation based on the principles of the early 90s Scandinavian black metal scene. Going back to the first wave bands such as Bathory, Celtic Frost, Venom e.t.c., whilst Satanism clearly featured it was very much more of a hammer horror/cartoonish approach. Sure, Mayhem and their ilk took it one step further but again, how much of this was simply a façade for shock value? After all, let us not forget that Euronymous was a massive Kraftwerk fan. 

It’s a tough one, frankly. The older I get, the more cynical/sceptical I get of bands who purport to be absolutely welded to their ideology – particularly an ideology that is entrenched in hatred, nihilism, destruction and non-metaphorical devil worship. To me, it sounds like an excuse to behave like an idiot, to march around in an attention-seeking and oh-so ‘shocking’ fashion, purporting to chisel away at the foundations of a stagnant ‘Christian’ society whilst actually thrashing around in the very lowliest, primordial tier. It’s pretty pathetic. Yes, there are a dedicated hard-core of orthodox artists who are deadly serious and fully committed to their beliefs (and these will know who they are) but like any scene, there are a vast amount of surface-level pseudo-rockstar poseurs cluttering it up and tarnishing its reputation. 

Fen as an artistic entity does not have much in common with orthodox black metal save for a sincerity of expression and a commitment to the message we are imparting. On ‘Carrion Skies’ we have reconnected with the more traditionally ‘black metal’ elements of our nature so there is great deal of anger present, a sense of futility and abhorrence at the relentless failings of humankind. In that, we are touching upon misanthropy I guess but explored through a different filter from the majority of ‘anti-human’ orthodox black metal. We are not so much ‘anti-human’ (and honestly, who can seriously describe themselves as ‘anti-human’ from the perspective of BEING a human?) as opposed to being in opposition to the fundamental, ongoing failings of the human condition and our frustrated, despairing reflections upon this. 

What can you tell me about the bonus tracks for the wooden box?

It is my understanding that the wooden box edition will be a strictly-limited ‘die-hard’ version of the album. It will be accompanied by a bonus CD containing three tracks. ‘Coffin Soil’ is the first of these and was recorded alongside the album. It is a very long song – over 17 minutes – which features a lot of ambient, improvised instrumentation and atmospherics. There are moments which are almost mantric – hypnotic refrains and drones that build and escalate. 

It was definitely something of an experiment for us and during the recording process, felt very much like it stood apart from the feel of the other songs we were looking at (though I must maintain it does still closely sit side-by-side with the album in my view). It is a dreamier, more obscure piece with lyrics focussing very much on spiritual reflections on death, decay and returning to the earth. Personally speaking, I think it is a real statement and the experimental nature of the noisescapes we utilized on this song is something I would very much like to explore in greater depth in the future. We really indulged ourselves here but I’m personally very pleased with the results of this – that certainly paves the way for future indulgences!

The second song is called ‘Trilithon’ and is a purely instrumental piece of guitar and cello. It is based upon a repeating refrain that I have had written for a long time now – it is incredibly simple and melodic but I feel it is quite evocative, really highlighting the more reflective side of the band. It may well be that this theme is incorporated into future material or at the very least, is deployed live in some fashion as an intro or something. Time will tell. 

The last track is ‘Twilight Descends’, a lengthy song we recorded back in 2009 for a label compilation. This of course harks back to an earlier incarnation of Fen and features our original drummer Theutus with keyboards courtesy of our first synth player Draugluin. I think it’s always important to acknowledge one’s past and whilst we have long since left some of these elements behind, it is still very much a ‘Fen’ song and one that really showcases the more epic side of the band in the earlier days. The recording is a little rough, certainly (it was recorded just after our debut ‘The Malediction Fields’) but I think it has a really interesting crepuscular atmosphere. 

The artwork is very different from the conventional cover fare you get nowadays via Photoshop et al; how was it done, and how does it connect to the overall concept of the album?

As with all of our releases, the artwork was created by our Grungyn (bass/vocals). We all had input into the overall composition and it was important that it embodied the themes addressed on the album without being over-cluttered – nevertheless, it was he who realised these concepts and very much bought it to life. I think it has achieved that original goal – fire, stone and threatening skies, at once ominous and inspiring, charged with ancient energy and the promise of strife to come. 

The main image was hand-painted and then digitally overlaid with textures of stone and earth to fully develop the depth of the piece. So yes, there was some photoshop-esque work involved but it was deployed in a subtle, refined fashion. I am particularly pleased with the ‘fiery’ rendering of the band logo – it’s an interesting presentation of the logo and one that I feel perfectly encapsulates the renewed fires of aggression in the performances on the album. 

The obvious question: what are your next steps now with the album released? Do you just take things as they come, or are you working towards a specific "goal"?

There’s no overall, materialistic goal – we just continue to strive towards making the very best music that we can. As I type, the album hasn’t yet been released yet – once it is, if it is well-received, it will hopefully enable us to play some more live shows. We’ve played in places as far away as Canada and Moscow over the last couple of years and these were excellent experiences – it would be wonderful to get the opportunity play some more gigs like these and/or embark on another tour.

Honestly though, my main drive – and ever-burning impulse – is to continue to forge the best music that I can. Each album that passes, I am pushing myself ever-harder, digging ever-deeper to tap into a near-subconscious creative impulse. After the recording for ‘Carrion Skies’ was completed, I promised myself that I would take some time off from writing for Fen to allow the batteries to recharge and the flames to rekindle – yet already, I have found myself working on new riffs, new ideas, new expressions. It never stops. It is like an addiction.  

Another usual game: name five records you are currently listening to.
It’s something of a mixed bag right now I’m afraid… 
Blut Aus Nord – Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry
Disbelief – Infected
Grails – Deep Politics
Judas Priest – Metal Works (1973 – 1993)
Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall

Andreas Schiffmann

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